Sean Hughes: interview
He's written novels, captained a 'Buzzcocks' team and even done Corrie, but now Sean Hughes is preparing for later life with elasticated trousers and a return to stand-up. Time Out joins him for a look back at his long career.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a comedian?
'I wanted to be a comedian right from the age of 13. I was blessed by the fact that I knew I was fucked in the head and realised that meant comedy would be perfect for me. I saw Richard Pryor's “Live at the Sunset Strip” on the telly and just wanted to be him. I don't mean black-up, but to have that skill to be able to go: I'm fucked up and funny as hell and I'll talk about that. Little did I know he was on crack at the time.'
You've described your childhood before as being 'unbearable'.
'Well, it was. Basically there was no ambition in our family, and rightly so, we'd not come from anything. It was like the Lowry painting, my childhood, just watching these massive people getting on the bus in the dark to go to work, and coming back in the dark. I'd worked part-time as a trolley boy when I was at school, just so I had my own money, and my family were delighted when I was offered a full-time job there. It was at that point I said, “What are you talking about? I'm not going to do that for my whole life. I'm going to go over to England to do stand-up.” They gave me no support whatsoever.
I nearly didn't make it though. When I was 19 I took my first acid tab and had a bad trip and it freaked me out for about a year. I had massive panic attacks and got the shakes. I was crippled by the paranoia. That was a real changing point for me, I could either hide under my bed for the rest of my life or just face it and get out. I went to see a psychiatrist and said: “Look, I'm having panic attacks every day but I'm going to go over to London to start doing stand-up next week; will I be all right?” She said: “I advise you strongly against going anywhere right now.” But I thought if I don't go now I'm never going to go, so I went.'
Was London what you expected?
'The weird thing was that I hated the gigs and I got bored of the circuit almost straightaway. I was playing The Comedy Store and hating every minute of it. Jongleurs used to make me sick to my stomach, having to go on to those people. After a while I basically decided that I was going to give up comedy if my first solo Edinburgh show didn't work. But that turned out to be the year I won the Perrier, which led to “Sean's Show” and so on.'
You stopped doing live stand-up for a few years. Why?
'I think it was because I became quite lazy, really, and also because, after I'd done my own show, I found myself playing these big, 4,000-seater venues packed with 14-year-old girls screaming at me. They didn't care what the hell I was saying. And I just went: “I can't do this,” and I stopped doing the shows because of it. That wasn't why I did comedy. I'm quite edgy, I still scare people a little bit, even though I don't mean to. But I just wanted tell the truth and be listened to.'
So why did you decide to come back to live work?
'I went into comedy right at the start for all the wrong reasons. I just wanted to be famous. But I soon realised just how blessed I was to be able to be given time on stage to say exactly what I wanted. I lost my way for a little bit but never really forgot that feeling. So now I do it for love and thank fuck. There's 12 year olds now going: “Hello Wembley!” and I'm going “Hello Gilded Balloon! Is there a stair lift in this venue?” The thing is, now I don't do it for the money, I do it because I want to.'
Since leaving “Never Mind the Buzzcocks” you've deliberately avoided doing any TV that might put you in entertainment's “celebrity” category…
'I think if you “celebrate” someone for their good work, that's brilliant. But my problem is with celebrities who are famous but have no talent. What's even worse is when all your heroes let you down. What are Iggy Pop and Johnny Rotten doing in those adverts? Do you go: I'm 50, I've done some great work, but now I'm going to sell my soul so I can get a more comfortable chair to sit in? I get quite angry about it.'
It's good to see that you haven't mellowed with age. How has the 44-year-old Sean Hughes changed?
'I say things in shops that I never thought I'd say, like: “Where's the elasticated trouser section?” I also hate the fact that I now get out of breath after even mild exercise. When I was walking up here today, I was thinking: if I die now, it wouldn't really be a “tragic death”, it would no longer be “Sean Hughes died tragically young”. And that's a little shocking to me.
My audience are mostly my age so tend not to heckle any more. Except the other night when I was talking about being vegetarian on stage, and this woman on the front row turned and whispered something to her husband. I asked her what it was and really innocently she said: “I just didn't realise vegetarians could get fat.” To which I replied: “Have you never seen Buddha?”
I don't know what she thought I did - get up in the morning and climb trees with squirrels for berries. The unexpected side effects of ageing are another one of the down sides of getting older. For instance, I gave up smoking to try and get fit but all it's done is screw up my metabolism and given me a fat face. Brilliant.'